The sale of fentanyl on the dark web grows so fast that sellers are able to offer steep discounts, and researchers worry it will be difficult to stop, a new study has found.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the University of Maryland, College Park analyzed the sales of Pharma-Master, which they describe as “an early and prominent fentanyl-selling operation” that sold drugs through AlphaBay, a dark web organization. They published their findings in the journal Global Crime.
According to the study, AlphaBay operated from 2014 to 2017 and was considered the largest dark web marketplace at the time with more than 200,000 users. Researchers looked at more than 5,500 drug transactions on AlphaBay involving more than 870,000 items sold for about US$2.8 million, focusing on Utah-based Pharma-Master, which mainly made fake prescription oxycodone pills that contained fentanyl instead.
Jonathan P. Caulkins, professor of operations research and public policy at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College who led the study, said in a press release that internet drug sales have the potential to become more prevalent.
“This raises the question of how they differ from traditional in-person distribution systems; to answer that, we examined how the organization operated, how profitable it was, and what its vulnerabilities were,” Caulkins said.
Researchers said dark web marketplaces, sometimes called cryptomarkets, usually involve cryptocurrencies because they provide anonymity, and Pharma-Master was particularly interesting because it provided insight into the organizational strategy of drug sellers.
Pharma-Master, which operated from 2015 to 2016, maintained a sales growth rate of about 15 per cent per week, according to the study.
“Increasing order sizes by a factor of 10 reduced the price per pill by approximately 25 per cent for oxycodone and 50 per cent for Xanax, which the organization also sold. Those steep quantity discounts led to large price markups when selling further down the distribution chain,” the press release said.
Study authors said it will likely be hard for law enforcement agencies to stop the sale of fentanyl online because drug-selling organizations grow so quickly.
Researchers found online drug sellers can expand rapidly because they are not limited by geography, have low costs and can reach many customers at once without meeting in person. They also operate more like a legal firm than a “traditional” drug organization, in that their staff has specialized roles, while ownership operates separately from workers.
Researchers said the study was limited because they were unsure what proportion of AlphaBay’s sales were Pharma-Master’s, adding that Pharma-Master “may have been atypical,” because most online drug sellers are “small and short-lived.”
Researchers also note the black market has changed considerably since the time AlphaBay was operational as most fentanyl now enters the U.S. through Mexico and from China directly.
Philippe C. Schicker, who co-authored the study while he was a master’s student in public policy and data analytics at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College, said Pharma-Master was just one of many drug-selling operations.
“And while it was a successful one, it was not long-lived. But there is still significant value in studying this organization because it contributed to the early rise in manufacturing counterfeit prescription drugs containing fentanyl, which has dominated drug overdose deaths in the United States and Canada for several years.”